Trenton Conundrum

As Governor Corzine and Lucille Davy continue to woo the court to replace the Abbott rulings with the new School Funding Reform Act, the Trenton Times has a piece today on one of our 31 Abbott districts, Trenton. The Times reports that because the State has frozen Trenton’s aid to last year’s number — $222,000,000 – the Board of Education there is planning various staffing and programming cuts to make up the difference.

While Trenton has applied for some supplemental aid, local board members and Superintendent Rodney Lofton commented that the extra cash could come at too high a premium – more control by the DOE. Board Vice President Alex Brown said,

It’s really an intrusion, potentially, into the total operations of the district. We have to work out whether it’s really in our best interest to go through that process.

There’s an irony here, as Trenton is subject to an enormous amount of intrusion as it is. The primary tool for the DOE’s oversight is QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum –who comes up with these names?) a mind-numbing catalogue of checklists that every district must provide. However, the final reports can be insightful. Here’s a sampling from Trenton’s:

Regarding the question, what is the most urgent need of the district:

At the forefront is the lack of rigorous, coherent curriculum, instruction and assessment practices in grades K-12.

At the secondary level, the 2006-2007 NJ School Report Card indicates a trend of improvement from middle school through high school in Language Arts scores, resulting in improved proficiency percentages. However, mathematics scores continued to decrease in proficiency percentages as students advance through the grades. Of particular note is the shortage of Highly Qualified math and science teachers at the secondary level.

A sampling of the 2006-2007 elementary NJ ASK scores in the district indicates that as students moved from grade 3 to 4 (2005-2006, 2006-2007), the proficiency percentages remained about the same in Language Arts, but greatly decreased in Mathematics. During analysis of the State data, in addition to the lack of a rigorous, cohesive curriculum, stakeholders also identified low expectations for students, the lack of rigorous formative and summative assessments, an inconsistent grading system, and lack of professional learning opportunities for staff in corresponding areas, including socio-cultural issues, equity issues, and data analysis. Also raised was the need to establish practices and programs to meet the needs of different, non-traditional learners, in addition to our culturally diverse learners (DPR I/P A7-A13).

You can see it for yourself here; the district posts the report right on their website, which is great.

But it sure is depressing. The schools are gang-ridden, the teachers aren’t teaching, there’s no curriculum to speak of, and the whole system seems to be marked by a culture of failure. Will replacing the Abbott designation with the SFRA help? Doesn’t seem likely. How about a merit pay system that substantially rewards successful teachers? How about bonuses for simply teaching there? How about pushing more forcefully for charter schools?

Trenton Central High is in its 5th year as a School In Need of Improvement (SINI). According to No Child Left Behind, this sad status entitles the kids there to public school choice and supplemental services, and the school itself must plan for “restructuring,” which means that they can either convert the place to a charter school, fire the administrative staff, or meet the requirements for substantive change. But public school choice is not a meaningful option in Trenton – what, the kids will move over to Daylight/Twilight High which is also in its 5th year of SINI and 84.8% of its kids failed the math HSPA ?

Too bad they can’t move across the district line and go to school in Hamilton or Ewing or Princeton.

The Abbott system of administering make-it-fair money has failed in Trenton. The SFRA won’t make it better. But that’s not what’s at stake in the Bergen County Courthouse today.

What do you think?

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